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Monday, 28 August 2000
Page: 19473

Mr JENKINS (9:58 PM) —Tonight we are discussing the Gene Technology Bill 2000 and two accompanying pieces of legislation. The object of the bill is to protect the health and safety of people and to protect the environment by identifying risks posed by or as a result of gene technology and by managing those risks through regulating certain dealings with GMOs—genetically modified organisms. As this debate has characterised, we are at a very important stage in assessing the proper use of gene technology.

Some eight or nine years ago it was my privilege to be involved in an inquiry conducted by the then Standing Committee on Industry, Science and Technology, which reported in February 1992. Its report was entitled Genetic manipulation: the threat or the glory? If we go back to that point in time—some eight years ago—it really is appropriate to set the stage and state the extent of the use of gene technology at that time. About a decade ago, there were no genetically modified crops commercially available. By 1995, throughout the world 1.6 million hectares had been planted. In 1999, it was estimated that the extent of those plantings had increased to 40 million hectares. In the United States of the order of half the soy bean crop and more than one-third of the corn are products of biotechnology. This is certainly a rapidly developing part of the way in which, in those examples, agriculture is being conducted.

This is an area where the proponents are equal in number with those that consider the risk of gene technology too great to contemplate. Let us put into context why people have a fear of the introduction of genetically modified organisms. This can be done simply by thinking about the introduction of exotic species and the effect that that has had on the Australian environment. A couple of examples of weeds and feral animals that were introduced are the prickly pear and the rabbit. Because of their introduction there was a catastrophic involvement with the environment and these things became environmental problems.

It is in that context that I think it is appropriate that we do not dismiss the concerns that people have about the introduction of genetically modified organisms as a result of biotechnology. Throughout this debate people have mentioned the fact that there has been genetic manipulation for quite some time, but in those cases it has been at a steady pace as a result of crossbreeding and the like. Through the techniques that are available we can have the intervention of biotechnology to introduce single genes into different species. I think that is causing people some concern because they want time to be able to absorb what the technology is about.

During the debate mention has been made of the agreement with the Australia New Zealand Food Standards Council about labelling rules for genetically modified foods. Some have said that, because the United States has decided not to go forward with labelling, that perhaps this is unnecessary. The labelling is very much saying to people that they have a right to understand the origin and the source, especially in this case, of food that they are consuming. It is also interesting to see the way in which the United States position has developed. Earlier this year the Clinton administration announced a series of changes to their regulatory framework for the way in which genetically modified foods were going to be introduced into the market. The basis for that change in regulatory requirement was the fact that it was understood that in the past, despite there being a justifiable case to say that those foods were only introduced after there had been the appropriate scientific review, there had not been the public debate required to give the confidence that that scientific review could lead to.

This is not about people merely dismissing the scientific basis for people believing that these foods or organisms are safe to introduce. It is about ensuring that the community can go forward with great confidence in the knowledge that what is actually happening has the proper safety element to it. People have to understand that it is not an extreme no progress view that has to be considered here. There are people in the middle ground with genuine concerns that should be being brought forward with the rest. The US position indicates that there needs to be an appropriate regulatory framework. In the case of the United States, it is a complex framework where there has to be cooperation, or it can be under the aegis of the Department of Agriculture, the Environment Protection Agency or the Food and Drug Administration, depending on what these genetically modified organisms are being used for.

The other interesting international precedent that we really should have regard to is what is happening in the European Union. The European Union is very concerned about food safety. When I say that I am not saying that in Australia we are not concerned, but the point is that the European experience with things such as mad cow disease has left them with a heightened awareness about the need to have confidence about the safety of foods. Therefore, when people such as David Byrne, the European Commissioner for Health and Consumer Protection, make statements about the safety of food, it has a great deal of resonance with the people of the European Union, on whose behalf he is talking. The European Union makes food safety a top priority. For some of its guidance the European Union uses agreements and measures such as the World Trade Organisation Agreement on the Application of Sanitary and Phytosanitary Measures. It wants to ensure it is complying with that and, through that, is also encouraging fellow members of the WTO to do the same to achieve the highest levels they can.

In fact, I do not think I am digressing too far to also emphasise that what we are talking about here are very pertinent concerns about the ongoing debate on international trade. Recently, and of great relevance to a trade debate, David Byrne made a speech entitled `GMOs, food for thought' at the Seattle conference, where he as the European Commissioner with responsibility for health and consumer protection was able to join the European team at the ministerial meetings. He said:

There is a certain parallel with the EU endeavour: we started with the construction of a single market mainly focusing on economic affairs. This implied not only opening frontiers but also rules to ensure fair competition. However, we quickly had to balance our economic objective with other—as legitimate—social, environmental and consumer protection objectives.

So I have a concern when people think that the type of regulatory framework that we want to enter into on genetically modified organisms and gene technology in total is in fact out of step with the freeing up of markets. Therefore, I was interested in the ACCI review of June 2000, in which there is an article under the heading `Biosafety protocol, protecting the environment or protecting trade?' This is my concern: in the current debate in the domestic circumstance—where we have been talking about free trade and fair trade—people have said that the term `fair trade' has now been captured by those who want to put up barriers. So ACCI discusses the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety, which is a global treaty that stresses the potential environmental impact of the movement of genetically modified organisms across national boundaries. So they are recognising that there has to be a regulatory framework to ensure that the movement across national boundaries of GMOs is under some control. In January 130 governments adopted the biosafety protocol but, as yet, only 50 have actually signed—Australia not being one of them.

My concern is that, in a genuine attempt to have a proper global framework about these issues of biosafety, it is too easy to be overwhelmed by the current discussion and debate on free and fair trade and for this to be labelled as an impediment and building a trade barrier. I am not so naive that I do not understand there are some countries that might use these types of devices not for the intention of the protection of the environment or for the safety of people but as a pseudo barrier against free trade. The point is that we cannot just dismiss protocols such as the biosafety protocol. We have to take them seriously.

The other aspect of concern is that, with the introduction of gene technology, there is much discussion about the use of the so-called precautionary principle. On some occasions, yet again, the discussion of the precautionary principle leads people to simply dismiss it because they see it as a grab-all type of phrase that can take in everything. What interests me is that the European Union understands that as an argument. The European Union is working hard to ensure that, when people use the term `precautionary principle' in the global debate, they understand what it is about and that it is actually a legitimate system to be used. At Seattle David Byrne outlined what he believes needs to be done. Inter alia he said that the European Union is establishing guidelines about where the precautionary principle should be applied—for instance, and this is the general use of the precautionary principle, in situations where the scientific evidence is uncertain. The EU goes on to say that there need to be guidelines that look at:

· the implementation of a precautionary measure must start with a scientific evaluation and risk assessment;

· the measures developed should be non-discriminatory, and proportional;

· the measures should be provisional and kept under review until full scientific advice permits a definitive decision.

So all they are really saying is that we should be cautious, that we should hasten slowly with these things. I think it is appropriate that, in June of this year, when the House of Representatives Standing Committee on Primary Industries and Regional Services looked at the primary producer access to gene technology—

Mr Sidebottom interjecting

Mr JENKINS —I acknowledge the honourable member, who was on the committee, for trying to assist me in the manner that he has. The report was entitled Work in progress: proceed with caution. These pieces of legislation are part of proceeding with caution. We want a regulatory framework that ensures rigorous scientific analysis that is done in a transparent manner. We want people to be aware of what is actually happening, and that they therefore can use the end products and the outcomes with great confidence. The sad fact is that there are too many examples of companies working in this area that have done the wrong thing. A headline appeared in the Sydney Morning Herald last Saturday, `GM seeds may be in food chain—Monsanto'. The basis of this article was evidence given before the Senate committee that is looking at this bill, in which a spokesperson on behalf of Monsanto said that some tonnes of GM cottonseed had accidentally been mixed with non-GM seed on a farm in Queensland. The mixed seed went into one big pile, and they do not know where it went from there.

Unfortunately, it is not good enough. While I acknowledge that others in this debate have talked about Monsanto acting in an altruistic way to ensure that some discoveries they have made about gene technology to improve the vitamin A content of certain things is shared with the Third World, there have been too many instances where—and Monsanto is only one of the companies that have done it—they have acted without due regard. I am not only concerned that their acting without due regard could have had environmental consequences; it is just as disappointing that, by acting in that manner, they have caused people not to have great faith in gene technology per se. Where there is this lack of confidence, there will be those who can be described as luddites who do not want to see technological progress and who will continue to win the public debate. I have no problem with their having that position, but I am seeking that discussions occur with the best use of the science that is available.

In that regard, and not only in the context of the type of regulatory framework that has been put in place by these bills, Australia must increase its research effort in this area. I note on their web site that CSIRO have indicated they are embarking upon quite a considerable program to look at the wider use of gene technology. Under the heading `Researchers probe environmental impacts of GMOs' they announced today on their web site a new $3 million three-year project to look at the effect on the environment of genetically modified plants, animals and other organisms on a large scale. I wonder whether $3 million is enough—whether we should not be taking it even more seriously. As has been said throughout this debate, there are potentially great benefits in the appropriate use of gene technology, and I have to support that as a notion. But if we are to go forward with great confidence about that use—that the benefits are not outweighed by the risks, and certainly the science is not precise about this—we have to understand what the secondary ecological effects of release of some of these organisms might be. But, in general, I support this progress in the use of gene technology. (Time expired)